This essay aims to track the developments in media gatekeeping through the emergence of the digital era and the boom in adoption of social media sites for news gathering, distribution and consumption. It begins with a history of the gatekeeping theory and how it has developed before going on to determine who, in the social media era, are the gatekeepers? It looks at how traditional media outlets like newspapers have adapted and how Twitter have encroached and given the public the platform to become journalists, provide feedback and become gatekeepers themselves.
The media gatekeeper
The practice of gatekeeping is, put simply, the method of diluting billions of available messages into a more digestible amount. (Shoemaker, 1991, p 1). The idea of a gatekeeper was not coined with communications in mind. The German-born American social psychologist Kurt Lewin is widely recognized with first devising the theory in 1947. He used it to determine that not everyone in the family was equal in determining what meal would be consumed at home and that the best way to implement social change was to focus on influencing the power brokers in the model. In this case the wife/mother (Lewin, 1947, p. 146).
The journalism professor David White is widely credited with the first employment of Lewin’s gatekeeper theory in the world of media and communications. However, discussion about the role of a filterer of messages can be traced far earlier. In his 1922 book, ‘The Immigrant Press And Its Control, Robert Ezra Park said: “There is an enormous amount of news “killed” every day (Park, 1922, p. 328). This was in relation to editors of immigrant newspapers in the United States and the decisions they make to fill newspapers.
While the term gate keeping may not have entered the media vernacular until the works of Lewin and White, the process of the role of filtering selections for communication, it is argued, has been around since the start of communication. For example, the size of a newspaper has routinely been printed with cost implications in mind, advertisers traditionally determined how many pages editors would have to fill and therefore how much space there was for news (Shoemaker and Reese 2014, p. 181). That space could never accommodate all the items of news each day, as Park said, so decisions have to be made. This method of working could be applied to the other main forms of mass media, be it television, radio, magazine etc. (Artwick, 2004, p. 16) said a producer can drop a story and therefore close the gate should he/she decided to that they were running out of airtime in the broadcast. (Shoemaker, 1991, p. 3) points out that even the town crier had to decide which messages to broadcast and which to leave.
White’s seminal study, ‘the Gate Keeper: A case study in the selection of news’, looked at one gatekeeper, Mr Gates, and the reasons behind why he, a news editor for a local American newspaper, selected and rejected certain wire agency stories. Perhaps the most telling statistic from it was that 640 of the 1297 news wire items that Mr Gates rejected were done so simply because of a lack of space. (White, 1950, p. 386).
But space is not the only consideration for a gate keeper/editor. (White, 1950)’s study also revealed that the editor discounted wire stories for reasons such as poor writing, a lack of interest in the event and the location of event (White, 1950, p. 386). These events are all determined by the gate keeper, demonstrating the power they have in their role. However, who is driving who? Readership and sales keep the editors in paid employment so offering a media that proved enticing to the consumer was vital. (Park, 1922, p. 330) argued that the editor would select the news that they thought would interest the consumer. (Gans, 1980, p. 678) argued that the common view had been that journalists provide consumers with the information required for self-governance. It could be argued, this method of providing what a news consumer wants, as appose to what they need, would suggest the consumer was actually in charge. In contrast, a study looking at the workflows of 16 wire editors across different news outlets showed editors had no perception of their audience. (Gieber, 1956, p. 432), in his article, “News is What Newspapermen Make It”, said the newspaper editors/gate keepers were too fixated on their work to factor in the effect on the audience. When analysing the two theories, it is important to remember the pre-digital era they were written. From my own experiences as an editor and having explored these two theories, the editor/gatekeeper would have had little regard for their reader. As (Vos and Heinderyckx, 2016, p. 30) describe, the pre digital media world was one where the consumer accepted with little fuss the decisions of the editors. The editors were the sole gatekeepers.
The digital era
The invention of the digital publishing era has changed that, however. Newspapers began publishing online. Space was not the pressing concern anymore, instead finding the journalists to fill it (Singer et al., 2011, p. 4). The online platform became a viable alternative if the paper was full and no more could be afforded by advertisers (Shoemaker and Reese, 2014, p. 181). The internet turned the tables on the traditional role of the journalist gate keeper. No longer could the gate keeper determine the information the public could see. (Singer, 2006, p.275). If the consumer was unable to find the news item they wanted in their regular tabloid, broadsheet, radio or TV station they could go online and search through google to find a different media outlet that was publishing it. (Sonenshine and Durocher, 1997, p. 11) argues that the power of the gate keeper/editor has been diluted as information flows from many places. The description is akin to a dam giving way and water flowing through.
However, the internet offered a cultural change as much as a technological one (Jenkins, 2006, p. 15). News consumers were inspired, and given the platform, to join in the media production cycle (Lewis, 2012, p. 853). Improvements in phone, tablet and laptop technology provided the general public with a camera and writing device to capture what they saw. This idea has had many labels, including user generated content and participatory journalism. The idea being that the general public can perform some of the tasks that were traditionally conducted by journalists and news outlets. (Domingo et al., 2008, p. 331). The evidence of this trend includes instances of the general public publishing news stories on natural disasters, terrorist attacks and protests. (Singer et al., 2011, p. 2).
The internet also closed the distance on news providers and consumers. Prior to the digital era, news consumers would write a letter or telephone a complaint to a newspaper, television or radio station. (Craft et al., 2016, p.683) argue that readers have been complaining to news outlets, editors and ombudsman about a series of issues, most commonly objectivity, balance, bias and accuracy, for decades. Newspapers would often publish complaints or praise in sections commonly termed ‘letters to the editor’. However, this process was also affected by gate keeping editors. These sections would traditionally have a specific editor to sift through the letters and select those for publication. A study by (Renfro, 1979, p. 822) revealed 32 percent of the reader letters sent to an American metropolitan daily newspaper failed to be published and therefore didn’t reach the public.
The beginning of the digital era has closed the distance. Be it email, tweets or another form of digital communication, news consumers are able to contact the journalist, gatekeeper or outlet in an easier format which is quicker and draws instant reaction. Social media sites, including Twitter, have also provided journalists and news outlets with detailed analytics of audience engagement. These gate keepers can get a swift quantitative study of consumer actions around news stories and topics with software development making this easily digestible (McKenzie et al., 2011, p. 378). But despite these capabilities, some journalists are not utilising the data. A study showed that a number of senior editors working for news outlets in America mostly used social media to post links to stories. (Bullard, 2015, p. 176).
For some, though, this closed distance and instant feedback has helped shaped news agendas. In a 2009 survey of U.S. news managers, almost two thirds monitored web statistics each day, more than half said they monitored web site traffic statistics on a daily basis and more than half reported discussing these statistics at least ‘fairly frequently’ in news meetings (Lowrey and Woo, 2010, p. 48). (Gieber, 1956, p. 432)’s newspaper men of a pre digital era may have enjoyed the distance from the reader but that luxury is not afforded in the internet era. As (Singer et al., 2011, p. 8) note, the distance between journalist and news consumer has disappeared.
Twitter is an American micro-blogging website that was founded in 2006 by Jack Dorsey, Noah Glass, Biz Stone, and Evan Williams. Users can read and send messages, or Tweets, of 280 characters publicly, to selected groups or privately via a direct message to another user. Tweets can contain different forms of media, including pictures, videos and audio files. In February 2019, Twitter had 126 million daily active users around the world (Twitter, 2019). This was the first time the site had revealed user numbers. For the vast bulk of journalists in lots of different countries, social media tools, like Twitter, have grown to be indispensable tools for their work. (Thurman, 2017, p. 1) and (Posetti J, 2009, p. 1)
A study by (Gulyas, 2017, p. 890) showed that Twitter and Facebook were the most used social media tools by journalists in mainly western countries. The large numbers of journalists adopting the tool suggest these social media platforms make life easier. (Hahn, 2013, p. 15) argues Twitter can help journalists by providing more sources and views for a story while also aiding the pace of publication. Twitter can also help steer your reporting on to topical trends and news items that have gripped the public. However, large numbers of users do not always lead to diversity and a balanced sample. A study of over 2,700 Twitter users in the U.S. revealed that just 10 percent of Twitter’s U.S. users are responsible for 80 percent of the output. (Hughes and Wojcik, 2019). The study also revealed that the most active 10 percent tended to be democratic voters who were highly educated, suggesting that Twitter in America was providing a small snapshot of society and not a countrywide, diverse view. (Hughes and Wojcik, 2019).
While the invention of social media has undoubtedly been popular with journalists, judged by the vast number of sign ups, it would appear through research, and experience, that Twitter and other platforms have made life more complex for journalists. (Gulyas, 2017, p.885) states that there was a general consensus that journalists have been considerably affected by the introduction of social media tools and the digital age, with the role now considered more complicated than before.
How Twitter has opened the gates
Social media has changed traditional gate keeping and removed the exclusivity of the role from journalists (Wallace J, 2018, p. 275). While the internet has opened up the possibilities of communication, Twitter, and social media sites like it, have provided a platform and community for conversation. Where once consumers would go to the website of their traditional newspaper or tv broadcast for news, many now go to Twitter to consume news from a selection of sources including the original actor of the story. (Blasingame, 2011, p. 4) defines this as ‘gatejumping’, where the news vaults the traditional journalist gate keepers and goes straight to news consumers.
Twitter empowers news consumers.
Twitter is one of a new band of social sites that have fostered a more instant and public form of audience engagement with stories. Audience members can post public critiques under Twitter posts of journalist’s news articles and videos (Lee E and Tandoc E.C, 2017, p. 437). (Lee E and Tandoc E.C, 2017, p. 437) argue that this digital feedback is quicker, more inclusive, more comprehensive and benefits from being public and not limited to journalists.
Twitter does provide the option to block or report Tweets and replies sent, but the vast majority of instant critiques to a news story from a traditional media outlet are visible to all. The public nature of the feedback, it is argued, means journalists remain are cautious and alert to it during as they go about their work (Lee E and Tandoc E.C, 2017, p. 442).
The invention of Twitter, however, has provided a platform for closer interaction between news providers and consumers. It hosts a space for citizen journalism, user generated content or participatory journalism where the public report the news. Twitter and the like are allowing the public to mediate news and therefore weaken the gatekeeping capabilities of journalists. Gatekeeping was considered a series of controls over what content left the newsroom and was mediated to news consumers (Bruns, 2003, 11). But (Singer J. B, 2014, p. 55) states that journalists, or people who work for media outlets, now produce only a portion of “mass-mediated ‘news.” This means that the role of journalist gatekeeper is being threatened by news consumers, the very group it provides for (Bowman and Willis, 2003, p. 7).
(Goode L, 2009, p. 1295) attempts to argue that old-style gatekeeping practices are matched in today’s digital era, despite considerable changes to the method. But experience and evidence suggest different. As (Shoemaker and Vos, 2009, p. 33) argue, the exclusive gate keeper club is over and that we all share the role. The journalist no longer solely decides what is published into the public domain, the people are free to distribute news via Twitter as well.
Trending Twitter and curated feeds
Twitter produces news feeds and trending stories. These are put together by curators and an algorithm. Twitter doesn’t produce news content but instead takes news items from a wide range of traditional media, new media and the general public and reposts it for its own audience (Wallace J, 2018, p. 275).
(Bruns, 2003, p. 34) described this as “Gatewatching” where Twitter, as do other social media platforms, promote the news of others by pointing to it rather than creating and publishing their own. Gatewatchers monitor all news at the gates and highlight to news consumers avenues to explore.
Journalists have followed this practice to create a relatively new story formats to deal with the vast amount of unverified and verified material posted on Twitter and other social sites for a wide range of news topics. These live blogs or live pages traditionally are used for major events, breaking news or live sports events (Coddington and Holton, 2014, p. 237). Social media editors and journalists are tasked with curating a continuingly updated story from the vast amount of verified and unverified information posted on Twitter around breaking news events.
(Thurman, 2017, p. 1) said the amount of content that is being produced is impossible to monitor, verify and digest. However, much of that content contains trivial information or spam (Farhi, 2009, p. 28) (Lehmann et al., 2013, p.3). While the scale of scrutinizing all that content is problematic, it does provide the journalist with the chance to re-establish their role as a gatekeeper of sorts. The volume of material means it is impossible for a news consumer to view all of it, therefore the journalist can sift through the various Tweets and applying journalist values to decide what should be including and which ones omitted (Hermida, 2010, p. 300).
However, Twitter and its news consumer users are also in competition for that curator role. Like with other social network sites, Twitter is complemented by algorithm-based services, such as search engines or news aggregators, which are redistributing and channelling information on the Web (Wallace J, 2018, p. 275).
It offers a news selection in its ‘Moments’ and ‘Trending’ sections and also uses its algorithm to try and tailor the most attractive news selection for your consumption. Choosing posts to repackage and distribute involves selection and assessing what might appeal to your intended audience. (Singer J, 2014, p. 57)
Twitter has also hired a number of curators to work in different languages to provide. The company says this team choose material that best serves the audience (Help.twitter.com, 2020). This definition is parallel to universally accepted definitions of traditional media gatekeeping where communicators pick some elements of a message and reject others (Shoemaker, 1991, p.1). It even fits with the earliest theories about newspaper gatekeeping. (Rosten, 1937, p. 255) argued that: “the entire process of journalism… rests upon selection”.
The role of gatekeeping has fundamentally changed with the advent of the internet. (Wallace J, 2018, p. 275) said the distribution of news by the general public and not journalists has left the gatekeeping theory in a state of flux. Journalists and news outlets went from all powerful decision makers of news distribution, closing gates on any number of stories they didn’t see fit, to a position of battling to survive. (Hermida, 2010, p. 300) argues that Twitter and other social media services are reducing the number of intermediaries between news outlets and consumers, therefore weakening the power of the journalist gate keeper. This essay looks at the history of mass media gatekeeping and how it has evolved through the digital age and then the advent of Twitter. It analyses how Twitter has affected gatekeeping, by opening the gates, removing the distance between journalist and consumer, the detailed story consumption analytics that are now discussed in newsrooms and the emergence of the Twitter curator. All aspects that show journalists no longer enjoy exclusivity on media gatekeeping and in fact share the role with Twitter and the general public.